Remembering Urbie Green (1926-2018)

The versatile trombone master has died at the age of 92

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Urbie Green

Urbie Green, one of jazz’s supreme trombone stylists and a versatile sideman, died at the Saucon Valley Manor in Hellertown, Pa., on Dec. 31. He was 92.

On the short list of all-time trombone greats, Green had a smooth sound, phrased lyrically, hit difficult notes effortlessly, and made them sound natural. He was also able to fit seamlessly into a wide range of formats: from the big bands of Gene Krupa, Woody Herman, and Benny Goodman to countless ad hoc studio aggregations (like the swing-rooted Buck Clayton jam session LPs) to tailgate antics with Dixieland bands at Eddie Condon’s.

Urban Clifford Green was born in Mobile, Ala., on Aug. 8, 1926. A trombone was passed down to him from his two older brothers and, at 16, he made his professional debut in the Tommy Reynolds band. He passed through the orchestras of Jan Savitt, Frankie Carle, and Gene Krupa before landing in Woody Herman’s Third Herd in 1950. Bill Harris, the rambunctious “preacher” of the previous Herds, had provided the group’s trombone model, but Green’s silky sound (playing lead, solos, and ensembles) and his proficiency on flag-wavers like “Apple Honey,” “Northwest Passage,” and “Caledonia” marked the beginning of a new era. Jimmy Giuffre wrote “Four Others,” a four-trombone feature, for Green. DownBeat’s critics named him a New Star in 1954.

A mainstay of the New York studios, Green recorded with Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins, Billie Holiday, Antonio Carlos Jobim, J.J. Johnson, Quincy Jones, Peggy Lee, Charlie Parker, Frank Sinatra, and Barbra Streisand, among many others. In an era when jazz musicians often had reputations for personal excess, he was a dependable family man.

Bassist Bill Crow first met Green doing studio work in the 1950s. “There were a lot of good trombone players around,” Crow says, “but Urbie was special. The sound he got was so personal and his playing was so beautiful. And I never heard him make a mistake; he nailed everything the first time.”

Green appeared in the 1956 movie The Benny Goodman Story. In his later years, Green told a story of how Goodman expected Stan Getz and the other players in the film to reiterate the old recorded solos for the soundtrack. Goodman stopped several takes during Green’s improvisations before he relented and let the trombonist play his own ideas. British critic Benny Green once characterized Green’s playing as what he imagined Jack Teagarden would have sounded like had he been born later.

For two summers in the late 1950s, vibraphonist Terry Gibbs led a Woody Herman tribute band through two European tours. Green was one of the all-stars, along with cornetist Nat Adderley and saxophonist Sal Nistico. “We had recorded a couple of times and appeared on some festivals before,” Gibbs points out, “but when I traveled with Urbie for three or four weeks, I really got to know him. He played new and different stuff on the same tunes every night—that’s when I knew he could really play.

“He had the most beautiful sound,” Gibbs continues. “It was like velvet on a ballad. When Urbie took one of those ballads, the guys didn’t go out for a smoke. We all watched and listened from the wings.”

The late trombonist and educator David Baker reserved special praise for Green’s upper-register command on “Slats,” from trumpeter Joe Newman’s 1955 album I’m Still Swinging, marveling particularly at his opening trill and the solo’s four-octave geography. Gibbs concurs, but adds: “Urbie didn’t play a lot of notes, or a high note, just to play them. When he played those things, they always fit into the song. You can tell if a person has a good upper register when you don’t think about what they’re doing.”

Green was appreciated as much for being a gentleman—an asset for stressful studio and touring situations—as he was for being a great player. He was modest about his abilities and accomplishments. In 1976, he told Herb Nolan in DownBeat: “I’m not the most thoroughly schooled musician in the world, but I haven’t heard any new notes in years and years. It’s the attitude and emotion you play with that are very important.”

A private service will be held on Jan. 30. The family, which includes wife Catherine and sons Jesse and Casey Green, requests that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Bensing-Thomas Funeral Home in Stroudsburg, Pa.